Tag Archive | language

Breaking down the modal barriers with language

The fundamental attribution error leads us to interpret the behavior of others as reflecting something inherent about those people, more than is warranted. However, the language we use plays a role in that judgment as well. Our labels often describe who people are instead of what they’re doing, e.g. pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, or drivers. Each one of those terms gives us a category to which those people belong, making it easier to attribute their actions as reflecting some property of members of that category. That, in turn, makes it more difficult to progress towards a multimodal and sustainable transportation system.

I propose a different and deliberate use of language to mitigate this:

  • Old: pedestrians. New: people on foot, or people walking.
  • Old: cyclists. New: people on bikes, or people cycling.
  • Old: transit users. New: people on transit.
  • Old: drivers or motorists. New: people in cars, or people driving.

Sometimes we’re in cars, sometimes we’re on transit, sometimes we’re on bikes, and sometimes we’re on foot. But we’re all people, and our perspectives are much more similar than the facile modal categories lead us to believe.

Down with “avid cyclists”

As if it wasn’t enough that we scare people away from cycling with our exclusively car-oriented infrastructure and even a socially constructed fear of cycling, we also do it by marginalizing cycling as something done only by the kind of people who cycle. Make a mental count of how often you’ve seen news reports or commentary refer to “avid cyclists”, and the number of times you might have used this term yourself.

Banish “avid cyclist” from your vocabulary. Self-marginalizing language like this is why we can’t have nice infrastructure.

By using and condoning the use of this term, we help reinforce our tendency to neglect the impact of the situation and over-attribute behavior to characteristics of the person. In other words, labelling those who willingly cycle as “avid cyclists” is a way of setting aside the difficult and interesting problem of how to make our cities conducive to cycling — in favor of the easy story of cycling as something “other”, as something done by people who aren’t normal. Why bother making the city a better place to cycle if the only people who will do it are the ones who are already cyclists? Why waste city money on them?

Note the division into us (normal people) and them (avid cyclists). Never the twain shall meet. Is that true? No it is not.

I claim that in most North American cities, while you will find many people riding a bicycle for utility/transportation, most people who cycle are hardly avid. Do they cycle in the dark? Do they always cycle on the road? Do they cycle in any part of the city? At any time of year? The answers are an emphatic no. And the reason is that the majority are cycling when the situation makes it easy and attractive for the person who considers the possibility. Avid cyclists should be resilient cyclists, but actual North American cyclists are fickle. With their recreational bikes and the poor infrastructure they have access to, they are fair-weather, back-roads cyclists.

Some places seem so far into the motor kingdom that cycling as transportation appears patently absurd to many. Thus, to brave the unfriendly conditions, cyclists must be avid — doing it as a sport, as exercise, to prove a point. Yet this describes fewer places than you think. I know it absolutely doesn’t describe Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, however “avid cyclist” still seems to be the mindset here.

There is a poignant irony in the number of obituaries a search for “avid cyclist” turns up. If instead of marginalizing cycling, we facilitate it through infrastructure and encourage regular people to ride, fewer people will die on the roads and those who cycle will be healthier for doing so. We need to free cycling from the shackles of recreation. We need to get utility bicycles into our bike stores. And instead of the conversation being about cyclists, we need to make it about regular people taking advantage of the two-wheel mobility available to them — because it is effective and enjoyable.

Addendum: There are more comments on this post over at Copenhagenize.com and Kaid Benfield responds as a proud avid cyclist.

Transit infrastructure, not just transit

The streetcars that crisscrossed North American cities and towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were generally built and run by private companies, and operated at a profit. With the rise of the private automobile and due to other factors, they were no longer able to turn a profit, even in the cities in which streetcars were not deliberately run into the ground. I don’t think cities realized at that time that the infrastructure of the streetcar lines may have actually been worth paying for — and not just something to be allowed if paid the usage fees by streetcar companies. And so the infrastructure was swept away with the streetcars, which paved the way (no pun intended) for the downturn of urban areas and boosted suburb development.

Fast forward to now. Many people still participate in discussion of, and decisions about transit in North America without understanding that transit is not just about moving people effectively. From such a point of view, it can make sense to advocate for high-frequency buses and not much else in many cases. (Of course, there are also factors such as comfort and simplicity to consider.)

The other side of transit is infrastructure. Transit infrastructure, generally rail-based, changes the fabric of its surroundings. It transforms the geography, and attracts disproportionate development to its stations or corridors. Once built, it is taken as a permanent and reliable connection and short-cut between disparate places. It is visibly in place, a financial and social investment that is both useful and that cannot be easily picked up and moved. In other words, it is infrastructure. And such infrastructure is central to reclaiming an urban landscape.

We should stop talking about just transit, and start talking about transit infrastructure. The way discussions are framed makes a difference, and currently discussion about transit allows the ignorance of all the implications of transit beyond the movement of people. The only way to build liveable cities in North America that are not car-dependent is by building strong transit infrastructure. Transit can only follow, while transit infrastructure leads.


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